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Arsenal vs Benfica: Mikel Arteta faced with major selection headache

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Arsenal have rarely been in this position this season, perhaps not even since the opening few fixtures of the Premier League weekend.

With numerous players faltering for large spells and only a select few stepping up, Mikel Arteta has had relatively easy lineups to make.

Opting to start the season with Willian in the team and without Bukayo Saka, which feels like borderline criminal activity at this point, early promise from certain players dissipated and the so-called ‘reliable’ options were in short supply.

With January business seeing numerous comings and goings, the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe in the No. 10 role and Alexandre Lacazette hitting superb form, the lineups almost chose themselves.

In recent weeks Nicolas Pepe has embarked on his best streak of the season, Martin Odegaard has proven his worth to the team and now Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has rediscovered his scoring touch.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta faced with major selection headache ahead of Europa League round of 32 clash with Benfica at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday
What to do, then?

Everything mentioned is saluted. Arsenal have had options for positions all season, just, well, not reliable ones. In midfield Arteta’s hands are still tied without Thomas Partey and all hell to break loose if Mohamed Elneny features, but in forward positions there is a variety to choose from all offering different qualities.

On one hand, why break up a team that not only got the best out of Aubameyang but got the best out of one another? Odegaard had a tidy full debut and helped instigate an effective counter-press, meanwhile Smith Rowe’s ball recovering high up the pitch and creative movement is a vital asset even out on the left flank. He bounced off fluidly with Aubameyang and the potent triangle he formed with Granit Xhaka on that side resulted in the opening goal, among other opportunities.

Does Smith Rowe return centrally given Odegaard’s lack of minutes this season? He was brought off before full-time on the weekend, likely due to fatigue.

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Pepe played no part in the 4-2 victory which has shades of tactical flexibility for the game as well as resting pre-Benfica. A livewire down that flank he’s finally starting to add some end product in the Premier League and his already frail confidence would take another significant knock if he’s exempt from two consecutive lineups.

These aren’t two paracetamol and a pint of water headaches. Arteta has wiggle room in his team for systems and personnel with differing profiles to suit the opponent. He will be savouring a moment that he hasn’t been presented with for large portions of the season. Big calls to make, but welcome ones.

This all without Gabriel Martinelli being mentioned, either. More options off the bench unless he persists with Willian.

It will be a fascinating lineup as whoever doesn’t feature has their own legitimate grounds for malcontent. Likely to boil down to Pepe or Odegaard, a case can still be made for most of the forward options.

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We certainly do not make life easy for ourselves! After experiencing some disappointing defeats in recent league trips to the midlands, Arsenal resisted the threat of a Newcastle-esque capitulation as they got back on the winning trail on Sunday, seeing off Leeds United in a highly-entertaining 4-2 victory at the Emirates.

In stark contrast to the Leeds dominance we witnessed at Elland Road earlier this season, this time it was Mikel Arteta who came out on top over the venerable Marcelo Bielsa, courtesy of some fascinating tactical innovations including the selection of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the No. 9 role and the debut appearance of an Emile Smith Rowe/Martin Odegaard midfield pairing.

However, perhaps one of the most compelling and influential aspects of the performance was the creative role afforded to our centre-back partnership for the evening; Gabriel and David Luiz. Having recognised the danger posed by the visitors’ industrious midfield in the reverse fixture, the boss successfully stifled them on this occasion by giving his Brazilian duo responsibility for initiating attacks.

Thanks to the competence of both players in possession and their numerical advantage over Patrick Bamford in the defensive third, the pair had frequent opportunities to drive into the midfield and play penetrating passes into pockets of space, regularly finding Smith Rowe and Odegaard on the turn – even if Luiz lost possession of the ball 21 times – which led to the creation of a number of promising goal-scoring situations.

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Arsenal centre-back pairing plays key role in comprehensive win against Leeds United
As they began to figure out Arsenal’s game plan, Leeds tried to mitigate the centre-back threat by using Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich to obstruct Luiz and Gabriel’s marauding runs, but this response only furthered the dominance of Arteta’s side on the match. Getting sucked into the Gunners trap, the away side’s pressing subsequently vacated space for Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos to exploit and they each caused numerous problems for the back-peddling defensive unit, ending the night with an assist apiece.

Considering how regular starters such as Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe were both rested at the weekend, and with key figures like Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey still out of action due to their respective injuries,

Arteta’s resourcefulness and tactical adaptations demonstrate previously-unseen firepower and flexibility among the Arsenal ranks, something that could prove very important if we are to compete against teams of varying styles on both the European and domestic scene.

After enduring a run of three games without victory, this win keeps us in the hunt for a European spot and provides a significant confidence boost for a team that, until recently, had been experiencing huge issues in the creative department.

Now looking more cohesive than ever, that should serve them well in their preparations for Thursday’s crunch Europa League tie against Benfica in Rome.

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